Simple(ish) tricks to make any style of writing better
I’ve done a lot of critiquing, beta reading, and professional editing. I work with people who write in all different styles and genres—even ones vastly different from any I usually write—and I’ve learned to appreciate them all on their own merits.
I see a lot of writing advice out there, and a great deal of it frustrates me, because it amounts to a style critique rather than sound writing advice, especially if applied indiscriminately. This sort of writing advice tries to regiment style and can impede creativity.
There are some pieces of advice, however, that I’ve found work across all styles and genres. These are some of the tips and tricks I use when writing and editing my own work as well as pretty much every other piece I look at. It’s the stuff that always seems to make writing better (although there are exceptions…I broke some of these same rules when writing in Justin’s schizophrenic character voice in The Other Place and its sequel. There are always times to break every rule, as long as you’re doing it on purpose.)
So, with that small caveat, here are six things I’ve found (almost) always improve all types of writing:
- Avoid dialogue tags whenever possible.
This is a common piece of writing advice that is sound, on most occasions. If you only have two people in the conversation, you don’t need a dialogue tag with every line of the conversation, because readers understand who’s talking as long as they’re oriented now and again.
You can also use action tags in the place of dialogue tags. Action tags usually precede the dialogue (though they can come after), and describe something a character is doing while they speak. Action tags are super great because they can perform quadruple duty: let us know who is speaking, develop character, create a mood or vibe, and put a vivid image in the reader’s mind. For instance:
“I just don’t know,” Marla said.
As opposed to:
Marla chiseled the dried blood from beneath her fingernails with her hunting knife. “I just don’t know.”
Of course, if you’ve already let us know that she’s cleaning her nails, choose another image. Also be careful of saying things like, “She smiled” or “She cocked an eyebrow”; I myself am guilty of overusing these action tags, and often they don’t add anything, and/or are already implied by the dialogue. In those cases, sometimes the normal dialogue tag is better.
- Adjectives and adverbs are okay; redundancy isn’t.
If the adjective or adverb is already implied by the scene, dialogue, or action, you don’t need to use it. For instance:
The bright Southern California sun shone intensely on their faces.
Neither “bright” nor “intensely” are really needed here, and don’t add much as to style, either (you probably don’t even need “on their faces” in most cases, if you want to get technical.) Or:
“We need to get out of here!” she yelled urgently.
You really just need the dialogue there, without the “yelled” or the “urgently”.
He leaned on the dented bumper of his car, eyeing her lustily.
Both “dented” and “lustily” add something here, if we don’t already know those things from context.
- Description is fine, but diagraming is generally not.
I love it when the author creates a bizarre, beautiful, or bleak image that sticks with me. However, I get really confused and any image in my head is destroyed whenever I read something like this:
The house was three stories tall, with three rows of five windows off to the right of the main entrance, and three rows of eight windows to the left of the entrance. The front door was tall and stately, a double door, with carved frescoes of cherubs and nymphs all along the edges. Inside, a hallway led off in front to the state rooms. Another to the right led to the ballroom, which had windows on one side and framed mirrors on half of the other walls, with portraits on the other half. A large, curved staircase…
You get what I’m going for. This happens even in traditionally-published novels more than I like to say.
The point of writing is to give readers an image; a feeling; an idea of what’s going on. Their imaginations will fill in the rest. In fact, you need to let readers’ imaginations do the rest, because that’s part of the fun of reading. They don’t need to see exactly what you’re seeing, they just need enough to get their own picture. In the passage above, the idea the writer is trying to convey is of a grand, old-style mansion. You can give us this impression with little images dropped here and there throughout the dialogue and action, preferably when the characters interact with their surroundings. We don’t need a layout of the house, especially all at once.
- Inner dialogue and exposition are fine, but be careful of telling the reader stuff they already know, or don’t need to know.
He pressed his lips to hers. She gave a little gasp, and her body melted into his. I want him so badly, she thought. I’ve never felt like this before about anyone.
Now, you can get away with a lot of inner dialogue and exposition, especially in romance, but in the above passage, we don’t need that inner thought at all. Even if we do perhaps, in some cases, need to see that thought once, we don’t need it every time he kisses her. We actually feel the moment and the romantic tension more if the inner dialogue is mostly implied by the characters and the situation, and left to the imagination.
Also, giving backstory or detail that doesn’t even play into the story is a double no-no. Backstories on minor characters that only appear once in the book; memories of events that aren’t relevant; long descriptions of job duties when the whole of the novel takes place while the character is on vacation—these sorts of things are often dead weight that slow pacing and bore readers.
- You don’t need to say something using the fewest words possible, but avoid repeating yourself, or telling something you’ve already shown.
Some people can go on and on and on without losing the reader, because their style is engaging for one reason or another. Not all of us are exclusively into the Spartan style of writing. But, even if you’re prone to wordiness, you don’t need to say things more than once. For instance:
She drove quickly down the road. She was in a hurry. She was late for a meeting, and would be in trouble with her boss.
Those three sentences basically convey the same idea a bunch of times. You could say the same thing by showing her honking her horn and swearing at traffic, and letting us know by context that she’s on her way to a meeting; or if nothing else by saying something like She drove like a maniac to get to the meeting.
She hated chocolate pie. She poked at the chocolate pie with her fork, wrinkling her nose. “I hate chocolate pie.”
You really just need the action there. You could also have the dialogue if character-appropriate, but the first sentence should never be there. It just tells before it shows, and thus reduces the impact of showing.
- Avoid sensory words such as “saw” “heard” “smelled” or “felt” as much as possible.
This is the hardest one. The trick here is to put the reader in the story; you do this by describing what’s going on instead of saying so-and-so saw or heard it going on. For instance:
Jeremy smelled jasmine.
As opposed to:
The scent of jasmine wafted over him.
The second makes you feel more like you’re there, right? Sometimes you need the sensory tag for emphasis; for instance, if your main character is in the other room and can’t see the door opening, you can’t say the door opened. You have to say they heard the door opening…or you could say The door creaked as it opened, or something, if appropriate. Also, I use the saw tag when I want to make it clear someone is noticing something that they were not meant to notice. Abraham saw Fred tuck his shirt over the butt of his pistol. That makes it clearer that it didn’t just happen, it happened surreptitiously.
The “feel” tag is harder to remove. It’s best if you can write the scene so it’s obvious what someone would be feeling. If you’ve done your character development, scene setting, and dialogue right, this is often possible. But, at times, you really do have to say things like George felt like she’d hung him by his nuts from the flagpole. There’s just no other way to get the point across and keep the reader along for the ride.
What writing tips and tricks do you use? I’d love to hear them. I’d also love to argue with you if you don’t agree with some of mine 🙂
Elizabeth Roderick is the author of two published novels, with more upcoming. She is a professional freelance editor.